Do round-the-world airfares still add up?

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It was October 2008 and, without a permanent job to tie me down, I purchased a round-the-world airline ticket through Asia, Europe and the United States. After trekking across Thailand and Cambodia and enjoying a blissed-out European summer, I landed in the East Village of New York where a cosy neighbourhood cafe served as my base to write from and sip a bottomless supply of bland American coffee.

One afternoon from behind the pages of the New York Times, I heard a familiar voice. “James, what the hell are you doing here?” It was a fellow Australian writer here on assignment to cover the US presidential election for an online news site. Several coffees later he offered me a job accompanying him on the campaign trail to help capture the video element to his reports. I was in.

As I’d purchased a flexible multi-stop airline ticket, all I needed to do was send an email to my travel agent back in Melbourne to adjust my flights.

Keep it flexible

For me an around-the-world ticket offers the freedom for such encounters and opportunities to open up, and for a fraction of the cost of purchasing return flights from any single destination. The relative geographic isolation of Australia means these type of fares are popular.

Round-the-world tickets may prove to be the thing that saves traditional real-world travel agents from becoming redundant in an online-dominated travel market. True, such tickets are available via airlines’ websites, but according to Stefanie Harms, travel consultant from Student Flights in Melbourne, the best deals are the ones travel agents can stitch together for you, combining and manipulating routings to create bespoke round-the-world tickets.

“A round-the-world ticket makes a lot of sense for Australian travellers because it allows you to sneak in a lot of different destinations with just the one airfare. Often you can visit Asia, Europe and North or South America all on the one ticket for a similar price to a return Europe airfare and significantly less than a return ticket to South America,” she says.

These fares change with each season and will need to be negotiated with a trusted travel agent, but at present Swiss airlines is offering a fare for just under $2,000 taking in Asia, Europe and the Americas (add about $400 in tax if you want to go to South America), while STA have a trip taking in Los Angeles, New York, Moscow and Singapore for $1,699 but you’ll need to make your own way across the US and between Moscow and Singapore.

In comparison, STA is offering fares from Melbourne or Sydney to London for $1,199 or New York for $1,263 but its round-the-world deal takes in both these cities as well as stopovers in California, another European destination and Asia for $1,699. If you want to book a return ticket to Rio De Janiero from Sydney in July, Flight Centre is offering tickets for $2,063, but a round-the-world ticket with Swiss airlines taking in Asia, Europe and Brazil will set you back $2,382.

Stefanie Harms at Student Flights says: “The value of round-the-world airfares becomes especially clear when you start to compare the cost to a basic return flight to one city.”

For example, in peak season for the European summer, a return fare from Melbourne to Berlin can cost between $2,000-$2,500 (depending on when you book) and a return Melbourne to New York airfare could cost around $1,500-$2,200.

“So potentially you can get multiple cities and countries on your ticket for just a little bit more than you would pay for a return to the one city,” says Harms.

Make your own adventures

Unlike traditional airfares, round-the-world tickets don’t have seasonal peak times or restrictions, meaning they are generally available all year round. Often these tickets are organised whereby the arrival and departure points are determined by availability, meaning you need to make your own way between them. These may prove to be the best parts of your journey because they force you to make your own plans outside of predetermined travel itineraries.

Joanna Luke, manager of round-the-world experiences for Flight Centre, says she often finds once travellers realise what they can do and see with these tickets they want to keep adding more and more cities into their holidays. “The only real downside is that you are going to have to get some more annual leave approved,” she says.

The carbon dilemma

The inescapable dilemma many of us face with any globe-trotting these days is the carbon footprint we will leave in our wake. For travellers from geographically isolated countries like Australia where it’s not possible to simply hop across different countries by train, the options are limited.

Although the miles covered on round-the-world trips are substantial, they are also substantially less than would be required to make separate return journeys to reach all these destinations. If we can fit it all into one trip, this is surely better than going back and forth around the world.

Weighing environmental footprint against the very human urge to see the world are questions every traveller will have to grapple with.

This article first published in The Guardian

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